Theft of two sculptures from School of Art exhibit raises security concerns
Two student works were stolen from the School of Art’s first year MFA exhibition, prompting concerns about the security of work exhibited in the School of Art’s spaces and about the lack of insurance offered to students. The culprit remains at large.
Courtesy of Malik Jalal
Rafael Villares ART ’24 was in class on Nov. 10 when he received a call from his wife, who was visiting the Yale School of Art’s Green Hall Gallery to take photos of his work on display.
Villares’ sculpture, his wife said, was missing.
“I would love to know why they stole it,” Villares said. “I’m giving myself the comfort of thinking that they liked it too much, so they wanted to keep it and have it closer to them … But apart from that, I’m really blank.”
The sculpture is one of two pieces stolen from the Yale School of Art’s exhibition “Blanket Statement: 1st-Year MFA Fall Exhibition,” which was open until Nov. 11. Both Villares’ sculpture and another piece created by Malik Jalal ART ’24 appear to have been taken from the exhibit sometime between the night of Nov. 9 and the morning of Nov. 10.
Green Hall Gallery has been accessible to all ID-holding members of the Yale community 24 hours a day for the entire semester, according to Jalal. The Gallery houses a rotation of exhibitions that change every few weeks. While the gallery hours are listed as 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the doors have been kept unlocked, allowing anyone with a valid Yale ID to walk in. The culprit remains unknown as campus police continue investigating the situation.
“We are all disheartened and disappointed that someone with access to this building, which is limited to the Yale community, could have treated Yale artists in such a way,” School of Art Dean Kymberly Pinder wrote in an email to the School of Art community sent on Monday afternoon and obtained by the News. “The galleries are educational spaces that are open to provide access and conversation among the community.”
Pinder announced in the email that reduced gallery hours and limits on student and faculty access to student exhibitions would soon be imposed. These new policies will be communicated before the opening of the undergraduate exhibition in the gallery space on Nov. 28.
Pinder did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
“I couldn’t quite believe that this would happen,” Jalal said. “Once I actually saw it for myself, that my piece was missing and so was Rafael’s, I started to get concerned about whether there was any possibility that either of us would be made whole.”
Jalal’s work, “The Anthropocene,” is an abstract form made of stainless steel and composed of tendril shapes. The sculpture sat on a red Chevrolet floor mat on the ground. Less than four feet long and “relatively small” in size, he concluded that it would be easy for someone to carry the object off.
Villares’ installation is titled “Unknown Land” and included a large drawing and a blue spherical object. The blue object sat on a wooden shelf within reach. Jalal suspects that the culprit stole these two objects in particular because they were freestanding and highly visible.
The School of Art photographed the entire exhibition at 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 in anticipation of the exhibit’s closing on Nov. 11. Both objects were still in the exhibit at that time. Around 10:30 a.m. the next day, when Villares’ wife visited the gallery, both objects were found to be missing.
A few hours later, while walking around the gallery with Ivana Dama ART ’24, Villares noticed that Jalal’s piece was also gone.
Villares warned others in a groupchat for MFA students of the theft, prompting them to check on their own work in the exhibition hall. When Villares and Jalal realized that theirs were the only works missing, they reported the theft to the campus police around 1:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Though there are two security cameras in the hallways of the School of Art building, there are no cameras or personnel surveilling the actual gallery, according to David Jon Walker ART ’23.
On Nov. 11, Walker hung a series of signs by the entrance of the School of Art building, designed to be the first thing visitors see when they walk in. The signs state that a crime occurred, and that per policy, the liability for those stolen projects falls “squarely” on the students. The final sign reads “the trust in OUR public has been fractured.”
Walker told the News that he felt disappointment and disgust that this theft had occurred in what should have been a safe space.
“The work was an informational gesture to all parties involved,” Walker said. “The administration is now dealing with having to figure out how to safeguard this space that students trust their work will be safe in.”
The signage warns other students to read the fine print of the student handbook which all MFA students sign upon matriculation to the program. Under handbook policy, student work is not insured or protected, leaving students to bear the cost of damage incurred. The handbook recommends that all students obtain personal property insurance.
“Yale does not cover theft or damage to personal property for any reason,” the handbook reads. “Students are responsible for the safety and security of their belongings.”
When Villares and Jalal initially reached out to people in “leadership positions” at the School of Art, Jalal said they abdicated responsibility, referring them to the handbook policy.
According to Andina Clarkson MFA ’24, this caused an “uproar” among the MFA students who wanted “better action” to be taken. Villares and Jalal have since received a few emails stating that the school is willing to reimburse them for materials, despite the policy.
“The actual things we purchased to make the work don’t even remotely reflect what the value of the work is,” Jalal said. “There’s a great deal of labor put directly into both of those objects. Their value is not determined by material expenses.”
Villares emphasized that this incident raises concern beyond the financial burden — a fundamental level of trust has been breached. Many students no longer feel safe exhibiting at the gallery. Villares hopes that this inspires the School of Art to reconsider safety measures, such as modifying the hours of access and hiring someone to monitor the artworks.
While this situation was “really upsetting and bad,” Villares said, he sees potential for long term change in how the school hosts exhibits. Although only Yale ID card holders have door access to the building, it remains unknown whether the culprit is a member of the Yale community. Walker said that if someone looks like a member of the Yale community, he suspected it was likely that another person would hold the door open for them and “not think twice” about granting a stranger access.
“The school could rethink the handbook, or the relationship of the students with the gallery,” Villares said. “Or maybe the safety of the gallery, if they need someone there at the gallery taking care of the works [who] could also explain the exhibition to the rest of the visitors.”
In her email, Pinder stated that law enforcement is investigating the incident with the hope that anyone who has information about the missing art workers will come forward. Confidential reports can be made online or by calling the toll-free Yale University Hotline at 877-360-YALE.
“The issue is much bigger than just these two works disappearing,” Jalal said. “That space is the go-to space for all of our group exhibitions and our thesis work … this puts us, as artists, in a very precarious and uncertain, unsafe, uncomfortable position. Something’s owed.”
The School of Art is located at 1156 Chapel St., New Haven, CT 06511.